Image By Huffington Post

Empowering Changes on the Mat

With only 10 days remaining in my 28-days of yoga, I had hoped practicing 30 minutes a day would become easy. Unfortunately, this has been one of the most surprising observations I’ve had about my experience: it hasn’t. Over the past 18 days I’ve worked long hours and had little time to myself due to obligations with my job. Though squeezing in time to practice yoga has been a daily challenge, I promised myself I would devote time to a personal goal and my well being, so I’m doing it.

Overall, performing yoga each day has reduced my stress level and increased my physical strength. I think my time on the mat has been both a gift and challenge, however, on nights like tonight — when I fall asleep on the couch after a long day — moving through sun salutations and holding poses are the last things I want to do. Hey, I’m being honest, here.

Despite my grumbling and the sleep in my eyes, I washed my face and went to the mat to practice. I haven’t missed a day, why would I start now? As I flowed through my movements I cared less about getting in all of my favorite poses or working out my arms and I chose to simply keep moving and breathing. The silence of my living room and new mat helped me ease into some light meditation. Slowly, I began to move beyond the tiredness from my day and in a way, I felt revived.

By the end, I was more centered and relaxed. I didn’t have a surplus of energy, or anything like that, but I had also overcome my self doubt and negativity about my 28-day challenge. I thought this was a small success overall, but then I had a realization. Each day I’ve done yoga there was something I needed to work out within myself. Today I was tired from not sleeping well the night before. Yesterday I felt weak. On Sunday I had anxiety about the week ahead. I discovered that going to the mat helps me identify emotions and tensions within myself that I wouldn’t necessarily recognize (no matter what type of yoga I’m doing — Vinyasa, Bikram or a blend of practices). When I practice yoga I am forced to confront these issues to establish the concentration required to breathe, hold poses and remember sequences. If I take nothing away from this experience, I hope I can at least remember the power of letting it go on the mat — even if that means forcing myself to get there and start.

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How to Find the Perfect Yoga Mat

Image By BalaYoga.com
Image By BalaYoga.com

Today my much-anticipated yoga mat arrived. It’s a good one. However, finding the perfect yoga mat can be challenging. Yet, there comes a time when you can’t ignore the holes and thinness of an old one and you have to start shopping.

I began by perusing the mat selection at my yoga studio, which has a wide variety of colors, lengths and thickness, but only a couple of brands. Next, I explored Amazon.com to find a good one quickly since many of the mats at YogaWorks and on YogaJournal.com’s shop were too pricey. I figured the reviewers on Amazon would help me decide.

I also didn’t want to pay $70-80 for a yoga mat. Plus, I wanted to know what the real differences were among brands like Gaiam, Manduka, JadeYoga, Agoy and Aurorae? Turns out, there are many.

I spent hours reading about yoga mats, yoga mat companies and reviews by other yogi shoppers seeking the zen of a perfect mat. I agonized over the materials, prices, colors, lengths and thickness. Choosing a mat was more than just selecting a useful piece of athletic equipment; picking a mat says something to your fellow yogis. It demonstrates your style, feelings about the environment and shows what kind of practitioner you are — if you choose a boring color, or a mat made out of PVC, instead of eco-friendly products or get the wrong length or thickness, you could totally look like a novice (or just someone who doesn’t care about the landfills filling up with discarded mats).

Maybe I’m over thinking it, but I didn’t want these yoga toes leaving too big of a carbon footprint. Here’s a quick cheat sheet I came up with so you don’t obsess the way I did.

My Tricks For Picking the Best Yoga Mat:

1. See the mats in person. Visit a yoga mat retailer and touch every type of mat. Get a feel for the texture, lengths, colors and thickness. Make note of what you like and what you don’t.

2. Do not make an impulse purchase. Avoid the temptation of walking out of the store with an overpriced mat. Do not buy one.

3. View options online. Go home and check out the online selection of mats on Amazon.com.

4. Narrow selections immediately. If you have Amazon Prime, you might as well filter buy Prime products only; especially since you were so eager to by that $80 mat earlier at the store. This way, you’ll get it in two days once you decide.

5. Go for the best. Sort your search results by the highest rated reviews. Begin reading about each type of mat and starting thinking about what you need in a mat. How thick is your current mat? Is it long enough? What would make your practice better?

6. Make it a 50-50 choice. Choose two mats that seem like the top rated products. Check out their websites to make sure they are legit and aren’t offering a special promotion that is cheaper than Amazon.  Begin reading the reviews for both mats. Read the best ones, read the worst ones — make sure you also read the comments on the reviews. You’ll want to see how people respond to negative and positive review in case they disagree. I would also make sure there are a lot of reviews, if there are only a few, it might be a sign that it’s a new product or a bad one.

7. Budget.Consider the amount of time you spend using the mat and the amount of money you want to invest in your practice. Also consider how long you think the mat will last and if the price point fits into the amount you have to spend.

Image By Aurorae
Northern Lights Yoga Mat By Aurorae

8. Talk it over with a friend. Tell a friends you are trying to find the best mat for your buck and then describe both mats. Tell your friend the pros and cons that matter to you and then see what he or she says about your options.

9. Make a decision. Ultimately, you need a mat, so once you’re pretty sure which mat will work best — buy it.Make sure there’s a good return policy in case you find it doesn’t work for you after all.

10. Try it out. Be your own best reviewer. Once the mat comes in the mail, try it out in the studio. If you have problems that can’t be fixed based on the reviewers notes return the merch, yogi! You have that second choice waiting for its test run.

Which mat did I choose? I went with the Northern Lights Yoga Mat by Aurorae because it had the best reviews. I had narrowed it down to Aurorae and Manduka mats because both had rave reviews. I ended up choosing the Aurorae mat because it was $45 as opposed to Manduka’s $84 for the BlackMat Pro or $63 for their PROlite. Plus, Aurorae has unbelievable customer service. In dozens of reviews the CEO of the company responds to people thanking them for reviewing his products or if there is negative feedback he wants to understand it and send it back to his company, and he gives away free stuff to entice his customer to remain loyal. And, it’s completely free of anything toxic or polluting when it’s produced or discarded. I also adore the ombre dip-dye effect in the colors.

On the other hand, Manduka has a lifetime guarantee for their mats, which is amazing, but I just couldn’t pass up this smaller brand. Plus, the Aurorae mat is machine washable and has a focal point to help you balance during tricky standing poses.

UPDATE: As of August 5, 2013, I’m still enjoying my yoga mat by Aurorae that I purchased. I’ve washed it, wiped it down a lot and basically used it every other day since I bought it. I hasn’t started showing signs of wear and tear until now! There are small little divots forming in the spot where my feet generally are for downward dog. This isn’t a huge issue, but thought I would note it here in case anyone wanted to know. The mat is still thick and has a bit of stickiness to it. Loving it. (Also, I get compliments on my mat all the time!)

Buddy Up For Bikram

Image By ScalesonFire.com
Image By ScalesonFire.com

After taking a Vinyasa course, I chose to do Bikram for day-two of my yoga challenge. I know Bikram is super trendy right now, so this probably isn’t a surprise, but I promise, I did not take Bikram to “lose weight like the stars” (Rebecca Romijn recently credited losing 60 lbs. of post-pregnancy weight to the practice). Even founder Bikram Choundry, himself touts his practice as the more glamorous yoga, but honestly, I just went with a friend who does Bikram regularly and I was really pleased with the experience.

If there’s one thing I can say about Bikram, it’s always good to go with a friend. I had done Bikram before and I liked it, but I didn’t care for the instructor’s boot camp teaching style or the stuffy studio that smelled of feet. The studio I tried recently was filled with light and a patient instructor — two things my other experiences at a Bikram College did not include. I learned the room in which you practice yoga, matters. Clearly, for me, having light and windows is important, but a yoga buddy was essential both times, too.

I don’t know what it is, I guess I like knowing someone else is there enduring the challenge with me, it’s such an intense experience, it’s comforting knowing you have someone there to support you, talk about it afterward and be there in case you feel a little woozy.

So, what’s Bikram like? Well, I think many people feel intimidated by the practice because they don’t like being hot and sweaty, or the 90 minutes of 100-plus-degrees and humidity seem unbearable, but the truth is, with the right mindset, a bottle of water and an absorbent yoga towel, Bikram is a cleansing and rewarding experience.

In “A Guide to Bikram Yoga,” Tessa Rottiers, Founder and instructor of Bikram Yoga Melbourne, believes there are many benefits to practicing Bikram, “In the short term you will sleep better, feel happier, be less injury prone with a more energetic and toned body. In the long term, you will have overall improved physical and mental health.”

While this is probably true of many forms of yoga, I really found her point about sleeping better to be particularly true. Yes, you sweat more during these classes than anything else I’ve experienced (including spinning!), but you gain so much energy afterward because your circulation is restored and you’ve perspired so much, you feel clean of any toxins and stress. And, with all that revived vigor, a good night’s rest is a guarantee. It’s like your body secretes all the bad stuff that’s inside with all the perspiration, so it can be released.

Most Bikram classes are similar. You begin with standing poses and end with floor exercises — 26 therapeutic postures in total that are said to improve your circulation and flush out the endocrine and nervous systems. During the class you perform intense breathing exercises and hold poses longer than other practices like Vinyasa. It requires absolute concentration. Seriously, do not go to Bikram if you don’t think you’ll have the patience or concentration to steady yourself and hold poses without letting your mind wander. Of course, that’s also part of the appeal, finding that intense focus in the midst of your day. And, trust me, as soon as your body temperature starts to rise and you’re holding a strenuous pose, you’ll start to feel every bead of sweat slowly making it’s way down your body. The trick is to stop thinking and go to a place where you know you can hold the pose and that’s all that matters — not the heat, the pain in your muscles, the thirst, or the tickle of sweat down the bridge of your nose.

How much sweat are we talking? A yoga instructor in Denver was interviewed about hydration (and the benefits of coconut water) after Bikram and he estimates up to a gallon of water loss from one class, according to a report by ABC Action News.  So, drink up after Bikram to help your body and muscles recover. During class, remember to take things slow and to always continue to breathe. “Avoid injury by easing into postures the first few times, then as you get to know the practice, you can use your breath as your guide,” says instructor Tessa Rottiers, “if you stop breathing, stop stretching.” She also says that dizziness and nausea are common for newbies, but taking potassium or sodium tablets before class can help.

This challenging heated practice is supposed to help you release tension and pain — physical and emotional — without over exertion. For those looking to increase their flexibility, Bikram will also move your goals forward even more because your joints and muscles get so warmed up. However, this is also the risk of Bikram, it’s easy to injure yourself at such high temperatures, whether it be from overstretching or dehydration.Yet, like I said, if you have water and you’re focused on what you’re doing, you’ll know when to take care of your body and when to push yourself. And, if you go with a buddy, you can rely on each other for support and a friendly reminder to take things easy.